March 18, 2010

STATE HOUSE: Growing, distributing medical marijuana at issue

BY SUSAN M. COVER Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- A legislative committee waded through 44 questions surrounding the state's medical marijuana law Tuesday, including how to regulate use by children and who will be authorized to grow the drug for dispensaries.

The Health and Human Services Committee is expected to vote out a final version of the bill this week, but implementing a citizen initiative to allow dispensaries to distribute the drug has proved difficult.

The committee delayed action on a proposal by Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, that would require dispensaries to buy marijuana only from state-licensed, wholesale growers. The bill approved by voters in November allows dispensaries to grow it themselves.

The idea to restrict growing for dispensaries to wholesale operations gained support from Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess, R-Cumberland, who wants to "decouple" growing operations from those who sell the drug.

She said oversight by the state Department of Agriculture could help with things such as pesticides and mites.

"I am in support of getting these rules and regulations in place in a controlled fashion," she said. "We can always expand, but to start to contract is very, very difficult."

She suggested the state might want to limit the number of growers until more is known about how the operations will work.

But Sen. Joe Brannigan, D-Portland, said the concept "doesn't fit with the original bill."

"I think it will take a lot longer to get it up and running," he said. "It smacks a little bit of worrying about the criminal aspect."

The proposed amendment continues to worry medical-marijuana advocates, who say small growers will do a much better job than big farms.

"Centralized agriculture doesn't work," said Jonathan Leavitt, executive director of the Maine Marijuana Policy Institute. "It's a shame it's even being considered in Maine."

When it comes to children, the law passed by voters does not place any age limit on use of marijuana, as long as it's recommended by a physician and at least one parent agrees.

On Tuesday, two committee members voted not to place any age limit, and seven wanted children to be at least 12 years old before a physician could consider recommending marijuana.

The committee also split on whether a separate medical board should be established to review recommended use of marijuana for those between the ages of 13 and 17.

Dr. James Maier, spokesman for the Maine Association of Psychiatric Physicians, told the committee there should be careful oversight when it comes to children. He advocated for the medical review board, and said although there are some cases where marijuana will help a terminally ill child, there won't be many times when it's appropriate.

"This stuff isn't benign," he said. "The marijuana now in our country and across the pond is four to five times more potent as what we may have been smoking in college."

Susan Cover -- 620-7015

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